Jul 17, 2020

Dispatches from 1918

It’s hard to imagine what the world will look like when COVID-19 has passed. So in this episode, we look back to the years after 1918, at the political, artistic, and viral aftermath of the flu pandemic that killed between 50 and 100 million people and left our world permanently transformed.

This episode was reported and produced by Rachael Cusick, Tad Davis, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Latif Nasser, Sarah Qari, Pat Walters, Molly Webster, with production assistance from Tad Davis and Bethel Habte.

Special thanks to the Radio Diaries podcast for letting us use an excerpt of their interview with Harry Mills. You can find the original episode here. For more on Egon Schiele’s life, check out the Leopold Museum’s biography, by Verena Gamper.

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate 

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[RADIOLAB INTRO]

 

PAT WALTERS: Jad?

 

JAD ABUMRAD: Hey!

 

PAT: Hey.

 

JAD: How's it going?

 

PAT: Good!

 

JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab with Dispatches six through ten. Pat Walters, Senior Editor, is gonna start us off.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

PAT: Okay. So you and Molly had this idea to do an episode about the 1918 flu.

 

JAD: Mm-hmm.

 

PAT: And whenever I get into something historical, I go to the newspaper archives. I just -- I think they're so cool. You know, coronavirus is in the news everywhere. We've been talking about this on the show and I thought like, "Oh, what did this look like in 1918?" But yeah, so I decided to just, like, go to the New York Times archive.

 

JAD: Mm-hmm.

 

PAT: Start in October, which was, like, the peak of the second wave of the 1918 flu.

 

JAD: Gotcha.

 

PAT: So sort of like people are talking about how things are opening up again and, like, we might have a second spike of the coronavirus. And, like, what people are afraid of is that what happened in 1918 will happen now, which is it was pretty bad when it emerged in the winter of 1918 in the beginning of the year.

 

JAD: Uh-huh.

 

PAT: And then it kind of went away. And then everyone was like, "Oh, it's gone!" And went back to normal, and that fall it spiked and, like, most of the people who died in that flu died in this second fall.

 

JAD: I didn't know that that's -- I actually honestly didn't know that that's the trajectory it took. It kind of freaks me out, I have to be honest.

 

PAT: Oh, yeah.

 

JAD: Anyhow, okay. Sorry.

 

PAT: So ...

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

PAT: So you go to the New York Times in the fall of 1918, and I remember struggling to find the flu.

 

JAD: Hmm.

 

PAT: It's all World War One. The front page of the paper on October 1, 1918, has huge, like, 20-point font headline across the whole page: "Bulgaria Quits the War; Turkey May Follow. War's Fiercest Fighting on Cambrai Front." I don't know what these things mean. I don't understand World War One enough to know what any of this means, but it's just like all war ...

 

PAT: French Advance On Every Front.

 

PAT: ... every day ...

 

PAT: British Take Many Towns

 

PAT: ... all fall.

 

PAT: Turkey Also Seeks Peace.

 

PAT: Austria Seeks To Quit War.

 

PAT: Page two, page three.

 

PAT: U.S.S. Tampa.

 

PAT: There's little maps, there's profiles of officers and different units and what they were doing in the war, where they were killed.

 

PAT: 692 casualties.

 

PAT: You have entire articles which are just names of all the people killed. And you keep going page five, six, seven, pretty much all war stories. You know, as you get into the low teens you get the flu stories. Just little briefs saying like, "St. Louis closed its businesses," or "The Health Commissioner has decided not to close the schools, even though everyone's saying you should close the schools." Or like, "The flu is in China now," and that's the whole story. It's just like ...

 

JAD: Really?

 

PAT: "Flu in China" is the story.

 

JAD: Just that sentence?

 

PAT: That's it.

 

JAD: Whoa.

 

PAT: So this is how the coverage goes all fall: war stories, war stories, war stories. And so my favorite example of this situation is December 20, 1918. It's another day, another typical day at the New York Times with no flu coverage on the front page, pretty much no flu coverage until the last page. And there, wedged in between a very fussy, long story about, like, who owns some cable lines -- it's like a half a page-long story, I don't even understand what it was about -- and an ad for shirt collars, you know, which were a thing then, is this tiny five-sentence story with this headline: "Six Million Died of Influenza."

 

JAD: Oh, [expletive] off.

 

PAT: And the subhead is: "Regarded As World's Greatest Plague Since the Black Death." So this five-sentence story stuck in the last page of the paper says this: "The Times's medical correspondent says that it seems reasonable to believe that throughout the world about six million persons have died from influenza and pneumonia during the last three months."

 

JAD: Oh my God.

 

PAT: "It has been estimated that the war caused the death of 20 million people in four and a half years. Thus, the correspondent points out, influenza has proved itself five times deadlier than war. Because in the same period at its epidemic rate, influenza would have killed 100 million."

 

JAD: Oh my God.

 

PAT: "Never since the Black Death has such a plague swept over the world, he says, adding that the need of a new survey of public health measures has never been more forcibly illustrated."

 

JAD: Oh my God. That's -- I just ...

 

PAT: And I just -- I just ...

 

JAD: That's just -- that's crazy!

 

PAT: Yeah.

 

JAD: Okay, so the 1918 flu is kind of famous for being forgotten. It wasn't widely taught in schools. You won't find it written about in a lot of novels and plays. But what I didn't realize is that it wasn't just forgotten after the fact, it was ignored in the moment as it was happening. And there are a lot of reasons for this. I mean, you had censorship in certain countries. You had self-censorship in this country, journalists feeling like maybe they had to keep morale up and stay focused on the war. Not to mention there wasn't much anyone felt that they could do about the flu. It was even kind of familiar, came around every year. And that year there was just more of it. But on top of that, and this is what I find interesting, they didn't even know what it was. Like, think about a couple months ago, March, coronavirus. Immediately, you began to see these illustrations in the paper of this spiky ball. My kids started drawing pictures of the spiky ball. We all had something we could visualize. Back then, they had no picture of the enemy. They didn't even know the flu was a virus. It was truly invisible.

 

JAD: And yet this tiny unseen unspoken of force was reshaping human history in all kinds of surprising ways. This show began with a simple question. What happens afterward, after this? And Molly Webster, who you'll hear from later in the program suggested well, let's look back at what happened after that one. And that's what we're gonna do today. As we enter the summer of coronavirus and look forward to the fall, we have five stories of how the invisible hand of that flu has continued to guide and shape us for the last hundred years and has left the world a very different place.

 

[SONG: The 1919 Influenza Blues - Essie Jenkins]

 

JAD: Okay, so these dispatches are a full team affair. We're gonna start things off -- well, we started with Pat. We're gonna keep it going with reporters Tad Davis and Matt Kielty.

 

MATT KIELTY: Yeah, so Tad and I we talked to a couple of historians.

 

TAD DAVIS: I don't hear. Can you hear?

 

JOHN BARRY: Yeah, I can hear you.

 

TAD: Okay.

 

MATT: John Berry.

 

TAD: Professor at Tulane University.

 

MATT: And ...

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: Hello?

 

MATT: Margaret?

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: Oh, hi. Good.

 

MATT: Margaret MacMillan.

 

TAD: Professor at University of Oxford.

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: Yeah.

 

MATT: Yeah, okay. So if we jump in near the end of 1918, there's a ceasefire. World War One is coming to an end. And I'm just wondering, like, what's the general mood?

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: Well, you know, there was this sort of mixed feeling that on the one hand in the Allied countries they'd won the war and that at least was over, but it also left a tremendous amount of chaos. Large parts of Europe were in revolution, empires were collapsing, and probably nine million dead of the combatants and goodness knows how many more who died of starvation or disease. So there was a lot of grief, a lot of concern about where the world was going. But also I think there was a real longing for some sort of better world.

 

MATT: And that new, better world was supposed to come in the form of a peace treaty.

 

TAD: So January, 1919, all the Allied leaders come together in Paris.

 

MATT: And who all were the Allies in World War One?

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: The key ones were France, Great Britain, and then of course the United States.

 

MATT: And John told us that when the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, arrived in Paris ...

 

JOHN BARRY: He entered almost as a conquering hero.

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: Huge crowds turned out to see him, because for a lot of Europeans -- and not just Europeans, a lot of people around the world -- he represented a new hope.

 

MATT: Because for the past year, Wilson had been giving these speeches about what the war meant to the United States.

 

TAD: And in them, he called for things like peace without victory. That there were no losers in this war.

 

MATT: He called for the end of colonialism, imperialism. He called for the creation of this thing that had never existed before that he was calling the League of Nations, where countries could just come together to talk through their differences rather than going to war over them.

 

TAD: It was all of this that had people calling Wilson the God of Justice.

 

MATT: But worth mentioning that Wilson ...

 

JOHN BARRY: You were for him or against him.

 

MATT: ... was a bit of an ass.

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: And that if you disagreed with him, he would cut you.

 

MATT: And more importantly, he was also extremely racist.

 

JOHN BARRY: He's not my favorite President. You know his personality ...

 

MATT: which is a whole 'nother story. But with a lot of historical accuracy and a little bit of drama ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Georges Clémenceau: Monsieur President ...]

 

MATT: ... to continue with this story ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Georges Clémenceau: Madames, monsieurs.]

 

MATT: January 18, 1919.

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Georges Clémenceau: Je déclare la Conférence de paix de Paris officiellement ouverte.]

 

MATT: In the office of the French Foreign Ministry ...

 

TAD: 37 nations, 200 delegates packed into this big conference room ...

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: With lots of gold and mirrors.

 

TAD: ... to come up with this peace treaty that they would eventually send to the enemy, Germany.

 

MATT: And at the front of the room at this long table were our two main players.

 

TAD: Woodrow Wilson ...

 

MATT: ... and right next to him ...

 

TAD: ... this short bald man with a big white mustache.

 

MATT: The prime minister of France, Georges Clémenceau.

 

TAD: He looks like Mr. Monopoly.

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: But Clémenceau was ferocious.

 

JOHN BARRY: His nickname was "The Tiger."

 

TAD: And unlike Wilson, he was someone who quote, "Had no real interest in humanity as a whole." His sole concern was for France.

 

MATT: And this would be a bit of a problem because Clémenceau, when it came to the enemy, Germany ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Georges Clémenceau: I don't think there is any question ...]

 

MATT: He wanted them treated like an enemy.

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Georges Clémenceau: ... that we are here to decide the issue of German guilt and ultimately German reparations.]

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: Because as the French kept on saying, "We didn't start the war. Germany declared war on us, and ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Georges Clémenceau: The conduct of Germany is almost unexampled in human history.]

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: ... the damage done to France was enormous.

 

MATT: The French had lost more men in the war than any other country.

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: Everyone in France had someone who died, knew someone who died.

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Georges Clémenceau: There must be justice for the dead and wounded.]

 

TAD: Whole villages had been wiped out, towns destroyed.

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Georges Clémenceau: And for those who have been orphaned and bereaved.]

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: He was saying someone should pay for this, and it should be Germany.

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Georges Clémenceau: Because Germany saw fit to gratify her lust for tyranny by resort to war.]

 

JOHN BARRY: He essentially wanted to put the boot on Germany's neck.

 

TAD: He didn't want Germany just to pay, he wanted payback for what Germany did.

 

JOHN BARRY: He wanted revenge.

 

TAD: Problem was ...

 

JOHN BARRY: Wilson didn't.

 

TAD: Wilson wanted to go easy on Germany. It was his whole peace without victory thing.

 

MATT: So Wilson and Clémenceau, they'd get together ...

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: Virtually every day.

 

MATT: ... privately.

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: Often in Woodrow Wilson's study.

 

MATT: There'd be a nice little spread.

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: Tea and coffee and chocolate éclairs and things.

 

MATT: And the two of them ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Woodrow Wilson: Georges ...]

 

MATT: ... would go at it.

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Woodrow Wilson: How long must we repeat history ...]

 

MATT: Wilson preaching peace and unity.

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Woodrow Wilson: ... before we learn that revenge won't work?]

 

MATT: And Clémenceau ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Georges Clémenceau: Your history is a short one.]

 

MATT: ... being just like, "Look, the Germans ..."

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Georges Clémenceau: The Germans must pay.]

 

MATT: ... need to be brought to their knees.

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Woodrow Wilson: The Germans are defeated.]

 

MATT: And they would argue back and forth ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Woodrow Wilson: They must not be destroyed.]

 

MATT: ... and back and forth.

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Georges Clémenceau: The Germans have attacked us before. They'll do it again.]

 

MATT: And they'd argue about the League of Nations ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Woodrow Wilson: We need to be just.]

 

MATT: ... about German reparations.

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Georges Clémenceau: Justice is what Germany shall have.]

 

MATT: And these negotiations ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Georges Clémenceau: Justice for the people ...]

 

MATT: ... started to drag ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Georges Clémenceau: ... who now stagger under the war debt which exceeds £30 billion.]

 

MATT: ... and drag.

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Woodrow Wilson: They cannot ...]

 

TAD: No one seems to be ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Woodrow Wilson: ... pay that much.]

 

TAD: ... budging.

 

MATT: And eventually, things started to get diplomatically heated.

 

TAD: John done told us after one meeting, Wilson turned to an aide ...

 

JOHN BARRY: And called the French, quote ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Woodrow Wilson: Damnable.]

 

TAD: In another meeting ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Georges Clémenceau: You, sir ...]

 

TAD: ... Clémenceau called Wilson ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Georges Clémenceau: ... are pro-German.]

 

JOHN BARRY: Pro-German, and left the room.

 

TAD: At one point, the British Prime Minister who was always in these talks ...

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: He said I feel as if I'm sitting between Napoleon ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Georges Clémenceau: Mais pour qui il me prend celui-là?]

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: ... and ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Woodrow Wilson: I am not thinking only of Germany.]

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: ... Jesus Christ.

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Woodrow Wilson: I'm thinking about the future of the world.]

 

VOICE ACTOR, Georges Clémenceau: Mais monsieur, vous rigolez.]

 

MATT: And this went on January ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Woodrow Wilson: We must make peace!]

 

MATT: ... February, March.

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Georges Clémenceau: There is no peace.]

 

MATT: And then eventually Wilson ...

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: He gets angry.

 

JOHN BARRY: So much so ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Woodrow Wilson: I want the steam engines prepared.]

 

MATT: ... that he threatens to just leave to go back to the States.

 

JOHN BARRY: On several occasions.

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: And Clémenceau said rather unkindly ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Georges Clémenceau: He's like a cook who keeps the trunk ready in the hallway.]

 

MATT: Because Wilson could never actually bring himself to go.

 

JOHN BARRY: In late March, Wilson told his wife quote, "Well, thank God I can still fight. And I'll win."

 

MATT: A few days later, he tells an aide ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Woodrow Wilson: We've got to make peace on the principles laid down and accepted or not make it at all.]

 

MATT: That was April 2.

 

JOHN BARRY: And the next day after that, April 3 ...

 

TAD: Wilson gets sick.

 

JOHN BARRY: To quote his doctor, "Wilson was seized with violent fits of coughing which were so severe and frequent that it interfered with his breathing," unquote.

 

TAD: He had a fever.

 

JOHN BARRY: His fever hit 103.

 

TAD: His health starts deteriorating so fast that his doctor thought he was poisoned.

 

JOHN BARRY: Because of intestinal symptoms.

 

MATT: Does that just mean, like, stomach pain?

 

JOHN BARRY: Yeah. And vomiting and diarrhea.

 

MATT: Turns out all symptoms of ...

 

JOHN BARRY: Influenza.

 

MATT: By this point, April of 1919, millions of people had already died of the flu. There had been these three big waves. And John told us this kind of remarkable thing is that as the flu had been rampaging, Wilson had never spoken of it.

 

JOHN BARRY: Not once.

 

MATT: Not publicly.

 

JOHN BARRY: He was focused entirely on the war. That's all he cared about.

 

MATT: And here's Wilson in Paris trying to put an end to the Great War, trying in some ways he thought to put an end maybe to just, like, war forever, while the third wave of the flu was moving through Paris. Now whether Wilson contracted the flu ...

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: I think we'll never know.

 

MATT: Margaret points out, like, we truly can't know.

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: It could have been. I think it was more than a cold. I mean, he really was very sick.

 

MATT: But for John, who wrote a whole book about the 1918 flu, he's like, a lot of the classic symptoms were there: diarrhea, nausea, fever, coughing, shortness of breath. And also this one peculiar symptom.

 

JOHN BARRY: Mental disorder.

 

MATT: John said for people who contracted the flu back then ...

 

JOHN BARRY: It's extremely common to be disoriented ...

 

MATT: ... to feel restless ...

 

TAD: ... to become delirious. And Wilson ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Woodrow Wilson: Do you hear them?]

 

TAD: ... definitely showed those symptoms.

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Woodrow Wilson: They're right outside the door.]

 

TAD: One of Wilson's closest aides ...

 

JOHN BARRY: ... said, "Nothing we could say could disabuse his mind of the thought ..."

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Woodrow Wilson: They hear me.]

 

[VOICE ACTOR, aide: Sir, who are you talking about?]

 

JOHN BARRY: "... that the home was filled with French spies."

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Woodrow Wilson: The French.]

 

TAD: Also around this time, Wilson ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Woodrow Wilson: Take the chairs.]

 

TAD: ... according to an aide ...

 

JOHN BARRY: Acquired a peculiar notion.

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Woodrow Wilson: Move them. Move them.]

 

JOHN BARRY: He was personally responsible ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Woodrow Wilson: Straight lines.]

 

JOHN BARRY: ... for all the property in the furnished place he was occupying.

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Woodrow Wilson: Put them in straight lines.]

 

JOHN BARRY: Something queer was happening in his mind.

 

MATT: The British Prime Minister referred to it as ...

 

JOHN BARRY: Quote, "Nervous and spiritual breakdown."

 

MATT: Clémenceau, when he got wind ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Georges Clémenceau: He is worse today.]

 

MATT: ... said to someone ...

 

[VOICE ACTOR, Georges Clémenceau: Do you know his doctor? Can you get around him and bribe him?]

 

JOHN BARRY: At the same time, Wilson's doctor is saying these are terrible days for the President.

 

TAD: Wilson would be sick and in bed for about a week. But even after he recovered, one of his aides said ...

 

JOHN BARRY: Quote, "One thing was certain. He was never the same after this little spell of sickness."

 

TAD: April 8.

 

JOHN BARRY: He goes back to the peace conference.

 

TAD: Back to negotiating with Clémenceau.

 

JOHN BARRY: But he's a different man. He's weaker.

 

TAD: Even one of his Secret Service aides noticed ...

 

JOHN BARRY: "Wilson lacked his old quickness of grasp and tired easily," unquote.

 

MATT: And this is the thing is that John said after Wilson got sick ...

 

JOHN BARRY: He gave in on practically every point.

 

MATT: He seemed to just fold to Clémenceau.

 

TAD: He went in with this idea to go light on Germany and came out with almost the opposite.

 

MATT: The final treaty called for everything Clémenceau wanted: harsh reparations on Germany, a huge reduction in its military, loss of a bunch of territory.

 

JOHN BARRY: Germany was pretty much eviscerated.

 

MATT: As Germany's foreign minister put it, quote, "They could have expressed the whole thing more simply in one clause: Germany renounces its existence," unquote.

 

TAD: Now Wilson did end up getting his League of Nations, but Germany in the end wasn't allowed to join it, which was pretty much a slap in the face. But some people say because Wilson got this big thing that he wanted all along, that's why he was willing to give up on everything else.

 

JOHN BARRY: But I don't think so. What he did in caving in was so foreign to everything in his personality and everything in his history. I can't prove it was the disease, but I don't see another reasonable explanation. And after Wilson made the concessions, a whole group of his top but younger aides met and considered whether they should resign in protest. One of them wrote Wilson a blistering letter of resignation.

 

MATT: It came from a diplomat named William C. Bullitt.

 

JOHN BARRY: Quote, "I am sorry that you did not fight our fight to the finish, and that you had so little faith in the millions of men like myself in every nation who had faith in you. Our government has consented now to deliver the suffering peoples of the world to new oppressions, subjections and dismemberments. A new century of war."

 

TAD: June 28, 1919, the Germans would eventually sign what is known as the Treaty of Versailles. And what happens next is something that's debated by historians. There's some like Margaret who say ...

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: There was a real problem here, and that was increasingly Germans felt they hadn't lost.

 

TAD: There was this growing sentiment amongst Germans that they could have won the war. It was just that, like, these liberal leaders surrendered too soon.

 

MARGARET MACMILLAN: And so if you feel you haven't lost, no treaty is going to seem fair.

 

TAD: But there are many historians who say that this treaty, the Treaty of Versailles, which was so harsh on Germany, pretty much forced them into a depression, humiliated the German people by blaming them for the war, that this treaty would sort of create this foundation for the rise of the Nazis, and obviously everything that followed: the Holocaust, Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the deaths of upwards of 80 million people. And it's kind of made me think a lot about Paris, 1919. How there was this moment where you had these two important men, Wilson and Clémenceau, who would be sitting at some table in Wilson's study or that big long table in the conference room and argue about what the world should become after the end of this first Great War. And I keep -- I sort of keep imagining that, like, in those rooms where Wilson and Clémenceau are sitting, that there's this other chair there, this empty chair. You know, it's over by itself, no one's paying attention to it. And I just keep thinking how it was almost as if the virus itself kind of had a seat at the table.

 

JAD: Reporters Tad Davis and Matt Kielty. Okay, so a lot of the recorded history of the 1918 flu is rather Eurocentric. In this next dispatch, which comes from reporter Sarah Qari, we're gonna tell a story about how the flu gave the arc of history and this one particular individual a little nudge all the way on the other side of the world.

 

SARAH QARI: So the place where it starts kind of is it’s May of 1918. I think it's, like, May 29, 1918. There's a ship that docks in the port city of Bombay, now known Mumbai. It's carrying Indian troops home from World War One.

 

JAD: I didn't know India fought in World War One.

 

SARAH: Yeah.

 

[NEWS CLIP: Indian soldiers prepare to embark for service overseas.]

 

SARAH: India was a British colony at the time, so about a million Indian soldiers were off fighting the war for the British.

 

[NEWS CLIP: Splendid soldiers, splendid fighters. They will give a good account of themselves wherever they may serve.]

 

SARAH: Some of them were in, like, France and Belgium. Also others, like the ones getting off this ship were coming from Mesopotamia, which is now Iraq.

 

JAD: Huh.

 

SARAH: Anyways, so this ship, it's only there for about 48 hours, but in those 48 hours, in addition to those soldiers, the flu also disembarks. A few days later, this one police officer that had been stationed at the dock shows up at the hospital running a fever. Then six other police officers get sick. A few days later, it's a bunch of men working for a local shipping company. Then it’s people working at the dockyard. The disease starts to spread through the city of Bombay, and from there throughout India. Now meanwhile, just north of Bombay, in the state of Gujarat, there’s a man that’s taking the train from city to city giving speeches.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Mohandas Gandhi: [speaking in Hindi]]

 

SARAH: He's a lawyer, activist, big proponent of nonviolent resistance, and his name is Mohandas Gandhi.

 

JAD: Ah!

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Mohandas Gandhi: [speaking in Hindi]]

 

SARAH: This is him speaking much later, but just to help you imagine.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Mohandas Gandhi: [speaking in Hindi]]

 

SARAH: And the thing is, like, in these speeches he’s actually recruiting people to fight in World War One for the British.

 

JAD: Really?

 

SARAH: It's very surprising, right? I mean, Gandhi definitely had some blind spots. He even, like, made some racist comments about Black people when he was in South Africa. And when it came to India, he had this idea that, like, if Indians fight for the British, then they will, in return, get more autonomy. To quote from some of these speeches that he gave ...

 

SARAH: "India has altogether lost the capacity to fight. It has not a particle of the courage it should have."

 

SARAH: "We are regarded as a cowardly people. If we want to become free from that reproach, we should learn the use of arms."

 

SARAH: So for him it was a show of strength, but also kind of like a bargaining chip.

 

JAD: I see. So he thought if Indians prove their strength the British would reward them?

 

SARAH: Yeah, something like that. So through that summer, the flu is spreading through India, Gandhi is running around giving speeches. And then all of a sudden on August 17, he writes a letter where he says, "I'm on my back."

 

JAD: Is that what he literally said, "I'm on my back?"

 

SARAH: Yeah.

 

JAD: That's like the letter equivalent of a text message.

 

SARAH: [laughs]

 

JAD: Like, "Sick. Can't talk."

 

SARAH: Exactly.

 

JAD: What else does he say?

 

SARAH: He says, "Dear, Mr. Henderson. I'm on my back. I'm passing through the severest illness of my life, and I was incapable of sending you a letter earlier."

 

JAD: And he -- so he got the flu?

 

SARAH: Well, it's kind of unclear. Like, one person I spoke to argued that it could have been the flu, other people said it probably wasn't. We honestly can't know for sure. According to Gandhi's own account, he got food poisoning from something that he ate and came down with a case of dysentery. But the thing is, it was really bad.

 

SARAH: "The appetite had all gone. I had all along thought I had an iron frame, but I found that my body had now become a lump of clay.”

 

SARAH: "I have almost to crawl to reach the lavatory, and I have such griping pain that I feel like screaming."

 

SARAH: "I wanted to scream all the time, but controlled the urge with great effort."

 

SARAH: "I longed to die and be free from it all."

 

JAD: Whoa.

 

SARAH: It went on for about five months. Like, approximately from August of 1918 to somewhere around January of the next year, which lines up exactly with the time of that terrible second wave of the flu in India. And so at the exact time that Gandhi was on his back, so was India. Like, it was utter devastation. And the colonial government was basically doing nothing. The sanitary commissioner of the state of Punjab writes, "The hospitals were choked so that it was impossible to remove the dead quickly enough to make room for the dying. The streets and lanes of cities were littered with dead and dying people."

 

JAD: Wow.

 

SARAH: "The postal and telegraph services were completely disorganized. The train service continued, but at all the principal stations dead and dying were being removed from the trains. The burning kot" -- which is a cremation site -- "and burial ground were literally swamped with corpses, whilst an even greater number awaited removal. Nearly every household was lamenting a death, and everywhere terror and confusion reigned."

 

JAD: Whoa!

 

SARAH: You know, in the US, we had about half a million people that died from the flu. In India, it was somewhere between 10 and 20 million people that died in just those few months.

 

JAD: Oh my God!

 

SARAH: Which is more than the number of soldiers that died in World War One globally. Like, we talk about the "Forgotten Flu," but the part that was most forgotten was what happened in India.

 

JAD: Wow, yeah. And Gandhi's on his back through that whole period?

 

SARAH: Yeah! He finds out that his son and daughter-in-law have come down with the Spanish Flu as well. His daughter-in-law actually ended up dying from it.

 

JAD: Wow.

 

SARAH: I actually started reading through some of his letters from this time, and they’re fascinating because you see him go from, like, writing these long screeds about politics and war recruiting to, like, real soul searching. For instance, around October or so, about two months into his illness, he's so sick that he starts to think that he might die.

 

SARAH: "Dear Harilal. I have a feeling that I'm now going. I have very little time left. The body is becoming weaker and weaker."

 

SARAH: You start to see him kind of contemplating his own life.

 

SARAH: "But the inheritance of character which I'm leaving to you is invaluable in my view. I wish you to cherish it. Follow the path of religion."

 

SARAH: "The more I contemplate this illness, the more deeply I realize what love of man to man must be, and therefore love of God to man."

 

SARAH: He's, like, reflecting on God, and ...

 

SARAH: "Nature is God and God is love."

 

SARAH: ... and nature. And Gandhi had this philosophy about illness where ...

 

SARAH: "Mysterious is the way karma works itself out."

 

SARAH: Any illness that you experience, often it's something that you've brought onto yourself.

 

JAD: Hmm.

 

SARAH: "We reap as we sow, we get what we deserve. In this illness I can see my own fault at every step."

 

SARAH: Because he thought that way about illness, when he'd actually got sick he started to reflect: What have I done to bring this on? And if you read his letters, it seems like part of that was realizing that recruiting for the war effort was misguided.

 

SARAH: "One need not assume that heroism is to be acquired only by fighting in a war. One can do so even while keeping out of it. War is one powerful means among many others, but if it is a powerful means it is also an evil one."

 

SARAH: That the way to have strength is not to fight for the British in a war of all things ...

 

SARAH: "We can cultivate manliness in a blameless way."

 

SARAH: ... it was to fight against them through non-violent means.

 

JAD: Hmm.

 

SARAH: What ends up happening is he emerges from his illness ...

 

[NEWS CLIP: As he moves across the dusty roads of India, this frail little man marshals his people.]

 

SARAH: ... and begins speaking to crowds again. The war is over, he's done recruiting and he says now that ...

 

[NEWS CLIP: It is not wrong to defy laws that are unfair.]

 

SARAH: ... we have to resist. By this time, the British have passed a law allowing them to arrest people without really any reason. And the people of India meanwhile, have been through all of this death and suffering and seen that the colonial government was powerless to help them or just didn't care to. So this time the crowds are much bigger. They're ready for Gandhi's message.

 

[NEWS CLIP: The temper of the people rose and so did the temper of the alien government.]

 

SARAH: To which the British respond by ...

 

[NEWS CLIP: Flares into open violence.]

 

SARAH: ... cracking down even further.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Prompt action by the authorities ...]

 

SARAH: Massacring hundreds of people in a city called Amritsar. And in the wake of that, Gandhi writes ...

 

SARAH: "It seems I shall have to fight the greatest battle of my life."

 

JAD: Wow.

 

[NEWS CLIP: From a handful of demonstrators, the marchers become a crowd, and then an army. Unstoppable. Gandhi's name becomes their battle cry.]

 

SARAH: It's a long time before Indians actually get their independence. I think 28 years to be exact. But this moment when the Spanish flu sweeps India, and both India and Gandhi emerge from this time of extreme hardship, I think you can say that this is the moment where independence really starts to take shape.

 

JAD: Coming up: dangerous bodies, ether ghosts, pig reservoirs and whale flu. That's right after the break.

 

JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab. The idea for this set of dispatches is simple: As we head into the summer of corona and into the uncertainty of the next few months, we thought it was a good time to sort of look forward by looking back to the aftermath of the 1918 flu, and to chart the many ways that the silent invisible hand of that flu virus has shaped human history. This next one comes from producer Latif Nasser.

 

JAD: All right, I'm ready.

 

LATIF NASSER: Okay.

 

JAD: Take me on a journey, Latif, back in time.

 

LATIF: And you're going back in time and you're going across the globe.

 

JAD: Nice.

 

LATIF: To Vienna.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

LATIF: In the early 1900s.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

LATIF: I mean, it's the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but it's really it's like -- it's like one of the cultural capitals of the world. It has this, you know, great classical legacy, you know, like Mozart and Beethoven and Hofburg Palace and that kind of thing. But at this moment in the early 1900s, it's just, like, bursting into modernity.

 

JAD: Hmm.

 

LATIF: And there was one point in 1913 where, within about two miles in central Vienna you could find Stalin, Trotsky, Freud and Hitler.

 

JAD: [laughs]

 

LATIF: Like, they would have been going to the same coffee shop.

 

JAD: That's insane.

 

LATIF: Isn't that crazy?

 

JAD: Is that true?

 

LATIF: Yeah. Yeah.

 

JAD: Oh my God. That's amazing.

 

LATIF: So anyways, so Vienna was this place and time where it's like, wow, this has a sort of disproportionate mark on the 20th century, right? And I want to tell you about a guy who was at that place at that time named Egon Schiele.

 

JAD: Egon Schiele. Okay.

 

LATIF: So 1907, at the time he was a teenager. He wanted to be an artist, studied at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, but he found his teacher so stifling that he drops out and he decides to seek out his idol, one of the best-known artists in all of Vienna, Gustav Klimt.

 

JAD: Oh! He had the famous painting that there was like a woman that people put up on their dorm rooms.

 

LATIF: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's like she's, like, in gold-leaf. It's called The Kiss.

 

JAD: Yes, that one. Yeah.

 

LATIF: That's Klimt. So you have this, like, teenaged art school dropout approaching his artistic hero who's 30 years his senior. And supposedly kind of the way the story goes, Schiele shows him some of his sketches. He asks him whether he has any talent, and Klimt says, "Much too much."

 

JAD: Mm!

 

LATIF: It's this sort of monumental moment. And within a few years Schiele skyrockets to success, and in exhibitions, like, you'll find their work alongside each other.

 

JAD: Wow, no kidding!

 

LATIF: Now just to give you a sense of what this guy Schiele what his work is like, like, this guy's not a bowl of fruit guy. He loves drawing portraits, and including and especially nudes. Like, he draws men, women, male couples, female couples, himself masturbating, women masturbating. A lot of people at the time considered him a pornographer. He even gets arrested and thrown in jail at one point, and then they just let him out of jail a few weeks later. And you can see why people found some of his work unsettling. Like, he would be drawing his sister, like, very detailed nudes of his sister, detailed nudes of, like, underage girls, you know, sickly people. There's a drawing he does, like, of the scrotum of a newborn baby boy.

 

JAD: Wow.

 

LATIF: Like, it's weird, it's really weird. And one of the Schiele experts I talked to, Verena Gamper, she was like to Schiele, painting bodies was a way of investigating the deepest questions about life. And just looking at the myself, like, you can see, like, he just wanted to see people.

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

LATIF: And the way people actually were, not the way they were supposed to look. Like, just the way they really actually looked.

 

JAD: Hmm.

 

LATIF: So a few years later, 1915, he marries Edith Harms.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

LATIF: Three days after the wedding, he has to report for active duty in the Austrian military. Couple years later, he gets reassigned back to Vienna. And soon after, he finds out that his mentor Gustav Klimt is in the hospital.

 

JAD: Hmm.

 

LATIF: Klimt had a stroke, and while he's in the hospital recuperating he contracts pneumonia. So Schiele goes to -- he basically goes to see his mentor on his deathbed but he's too late.

 

JAD: Oh.

 

LATIF: So instead he goes to the morgue and sits next to Klimt's body and starts to sketch him. Like, almost like a -- like a death mask, you know? Like, it's like he's making a death mask or something like that.

 

JAD: Like trying to freeze him or something or hold him or something.

 

LATIF: Yeah.

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

LATIF: Yeah, exactly. So Klimt dies, and sort of as Schiele is reeling from the death of his mentor, he's actually professionally doing better than ever. The whole Vienna art scene sees him as this rock star. He buys a new, like, big studio, and he talks about how he was going to convert his old studio into this kind of new revolutionary kind of like art school. It wasn't just gonna be a kind of a traditional art school the way that he had gone to. He hoped that there would be these kind of cohorts of artists behind him that he could help train the way he wished he had been trained. And besides that his wife Edith, she becomes pregnant. But then comes the fall when the big second wave of the flu pandemic hits. And according to the Schiele biographer, Jane Kallir, there's this family story that Edith, who was by this point six months pregnant, she decides to go out and get some groceries. She goes downtown and comes back with the flu.

 

JAD: Oh wow.

 

LATIF: So Schiele just attends to her over the next couple of days, and just has to watch as she's, you know, struggling to breathe, and as she and also obviously their unborn child just kind of start to fade away.

 

JAD: Whoa.

 

LATIF: And the night before she dies, she asks for a pen and paper and writes this kind of barely legible note with super loopy handwriting which says something like, "I love you and I love you endlessly. Edith."

 

JAD: Wow.

 

LATIF: And Schiele, he's sort of sitting next to her, and just like he did with Klimt, he just sketches her. So he makes this really gut-wrenchingly sad portrait of Edith.

 

JANE KALLIR: You see her in the bed.

 

LATIF: Schiele biographer Jane Kallir.

 

JANE KALLIR: Her head is propped up on pillows, her eyes are half closing but trying to stay open. You see her fading away.

 

LATIF: So ...

 

JAD: She died that night?

 

LATIF: So she lived through the night. She died in the morning, and then it's that same day that Schiele first starts to shiver.

 

JAD: Oh, wow.

 

LATIF: So for the next three days, he lays in bed with a high fever and he dies the same day as her funeral.

 

JAD: Whoa.

 

LATIF: Yeah, he was 28. She was 25.

 

JAD: Wow, so that's -- that's horrible. Like, this guy who's about to -- whose life is about to just explode suddenly has these three deaths in rapid succession.

 

LATIF: Yeah.

 

JAD: Wow. What do you make of that?

 

LATIF: One of the ideas that the biographer Jane Kallir brought up was this term that Gertrude Stein coined called The Lost Generation.

 

JANE KALLIR: And when we hear that phrase, usually you think of F. Scott Fitzgerald or Hemingway.

 

LATIF: The nihilism of young people who lived through the 19-teens, but there's another way to read it.

 

JANE KALLIR: The Lost Generation were people who were literally lost. They weren't there anymore. They were gone.

 

LATIF: And in a way, Schiele is one of the kind of the crystallizations of that. Like, he's one of the clearest examples of that. Someone who was brilliant, someone who's prolific. Like, he had this sort of spark that was -- that was snuffed out.

 

JAD: Hmm.

 

LATIF: So that made me wonder, like, what would it be -- what would it have been like if they had survived? Like, how would modern art -- how would the modern world be different? And so I -- it's funny. Like, I asked these two different scholars, and they had kind of the same answer which was sort of striking. They were like, Schiele was into drawing people, right? He was into drawing bodies, he was into drawing these human figures. But after the war, modern art in Europe moves away from figural work, like human figures, and then towards abstraction. And it was only relatively recently that Schiele's work became in vogue again.

 

JAD: Wow. That's kind of -- that gives me chills just thinking about that. It's like, for somebody who so passionately took in the human form to then in the wake of the pandemic and the war, it's just too painful to take in the human forms anymore and so we have to look away.

 

LATIF: Hmm.

 

JAD: You know?

 

LATIF: Yeah.

 

JAD: That's kind of what I hear in that story.

 

LATIF: Yeah. Yeah, and it does feel like between the war and the pandemic, like, that whole generation must have seen the human body in such -- like, in its most -- like, seen it in the frailest way and the most visceral way. Like, it's like, oh, I don't want to see that anymore.

 

JAD: Well, don't you have -- I mean, I remember you saying something like this. I mean, I -- bodies look dangerous now.

 

LATIF: Mm.

 

JAD: I saw this picture. It was one of those -- like, it was a Condé Nast publication that I guess had been done right before the pandemic. And it had on the cover these two Millennials embracing and kissing each other. And I remember seeing this photo and just recoiling. The idea of two human bodies touching? I was like, "Oh! No! Get away from each other!" Like, there's some way in which the human body, like, the -- it's radioactive now.

 

LATIF: It's weird because there's a way in which -- I don't know, it's like at this moment our bodies are simultaneously -- they seem so dangerous and, like, weapons. But then also, like, our bodies seem so vulnerable. Like, the idea that, like, someone's, you know, knee on a neck, like, could be that devastating, you know? Like, it just -- like, you feel -- I don't know. It's like at this moment, there's these two conflicting things. Like, it's like bodies as so vulnerable and bodies as so dangerous.

 

JAD: Hmm. Producer Latif Nasser. Next up? Rachael Cusick.

 

JAD: Okay. I am at your service.

 

RACHAEL CUSICK: All right.

 

JAD: Ready to be inspired and amazed.

 

RACHAEL: Well, I don't know how much I'm gonna inspire you because I think you know a lot of what I'm about to say because you are a radio man, but I appreciate you faking enthusiasm for the next 30 minutes. I'm really ...

 

JAD: No, I'm not gonna fake it. It's sort of like -- oh my God! My -- sorry, my child just scared the [expletive] out of me.

 

RACHAEL: That's so good!

 

JAD: But anyhow, okay. So where -- where would you like to launch in?

 

RACHAEL: Let's start in the fall of 1919. The war's over, the flu is winding down, and we're in Pittsburgh with this guy.

 

SUSAN DOUGLAS: Frank Conrad, who had been a ham operator before the war. And once the war ends, in his garage he, you know, sets up his -- or resets up his amateur station.

 

RACHAEL: So that's Susan Douglas, radio historian.

 

SUSAN DOUGLAS: And I am a Professor of Communication and Media at the University of Michigan.

 

RACHAEL: And back then, radio broadcasts were really just Morse code. Just a bunch of beeps and boops. But Frank was about to change that.

 

SUSAN DOUGLAS: He worked for Westinghouse, which was an electrical manufacturing company. So he thus had access to vacuum tubes that were used for transmission.

 

RACHAEL: And all you need to know about vacuum tubes is that they were the secret bit of technology that let radio go from [beeps] this, to this thing that's full of life. But also in that moment in history in the wake of the flu, weirdly made us confront death.

 

SUSAN DOUGLAS: Absolutely.

 

RACHAEL: So on October 17, 1919, Frank is in his garage with these fancy vacuum tubes. And then he picks up a microphone ...

 

SUSAN DOUGLAS: Pushed up to, you know, a phonograph.

 

RACHAEL: ... and music floated out of Frank's little garage into the air. There's no recording of this broadcast. All we know is that Frank talked a little, played some music. And about 35 miles away, all the way across Pittsburgh, those sounds reached the ears of a little boy named Harry Mills.

 

HARRY MILLS: I remember it was 10 or 11 o'clock at night and all at once this voice appears. And I remember letting out a yelp or a shout of some sort, and my dad who had just gotten out of the bath come in wrapped in a towel to make sure I was all right, something hadn't happened to me. And I said, "Dad, look! I'm hearing this fellow talking!" And we shared the headphones, we only had one pair of headphones. And he allowed that I was right.

 

JAD: That -- what a moment that must have been!

 

RACHAEL: Can you -- right?

 

JAD: To suddenly, like ...

 

RACHAEL: Imagine that -- that, like, that's never happened before. You didn't realize that the radio could even do that.

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

RACHAEL: And then this voice, like, fills your bedroom. I think that's just the coolest thing ever.

 

JAD: It's super cool.

 

RACHAEL: And other people thought it was pretty cool, too.

 

SUSAN DOUGLAS: One of the Pittsburgh newspapers began reporting on this.

 

RACHAEL: And once word literally got out ...

 

SUSAN DOUGLAS: That it was this guy broadcasting voice and music from his garage in Pittsburgh.

 

RACHAEL: Soon, all of these places ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Billy Sunday: America needs a tidal wave of the old time religion!]

 

SUSAN DOUGLAS: Religious organizations ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, radio: [singing] The union makes us strong.]

 

SUSAN DOUGLAS: ... labor unions ...

 

RACHAEL: ... wanted to do what Frank did in his garage.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, radio: In the Rose Bowl, Michigan lives up to ...]

 

SUSAN DOUGLAS: ... colleges and universities ...

 

RACHAEL: Newspapers, the Boy Scouts ...

 

SUSAN DOUGLAS: ... everybody wanted in on this.

 

RACHAEL: And at this moment, the radio you'd have in your home is really just a bunch of coils and wires ...

 

SUSAN DOUGLAS: And a crystal. There was this little wire and it was called a cat whisker.

 

RACHAEL: Oh!

 

SUSAN DOUGLAS: And you would basically move it around the crystal until you got something.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, radio: And in came the world.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, radio: People have been asking me for the last two days, why put a ventriloquist on the air? The answer is why not?]

 

RACHAEL: And ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, radio: We'd appreciate it if anyone hearing this broadcast would communicate with us.]

 

RACHAEL: ... as you'd move the whisker around that crystal ...

 

SUSAN DOUGLAS: You were not just hearing voice and music. You were hearing howls. You were hearing screeches. You were hearing static. All of this kind of atmospheric noise that was ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, radio: Go ahead, please.]

 

SUSAN DOUGLAS: ... really creepy and really weird, you know?

 

RACHAEL: You heard all of these sounds that lived between the voices, between the everyday human world and something that stretched beyond it.

 

SUSAN DOUGLAS: And let's remember the context. By the end of World War One, between 10 and 20 million people had been killed.

 

RACHAEL: And then another 50 million or so were killed by the flu. Pretty much everybody knew somebody who had died: a friend, or a family member, or a loved one. And they were ...

 

SUSAN DOUGLAS: Desperate for some kind of way of coping.

 

RACHAEL: And so when people heard these mysterious voices on the radio ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, radio: Hello. Hello there.]

 

RACHAEL: ... a lot of them wondered ...

 

SUSAN DOUGLAS: Is somebody trying to reach me? Are they okay on the other side? Is there another side? Can I communicate with the undead?

 

RACHAEL: Susan says this was a real moment where spiritualism took off.

 

SUSAN DOUGLAS: Ouija boards were flying off the shelves, people did go to seances.

 

RACHAEL: People thought maybe my brother or mother or cousin or whoever else I lost was out there, floating around in this space called the ether, which is also where people believed the radio waves lived.

 

SUSAN DOUGLAS: And so explorations of the ether, you know, via radio might be the way in which we could connect with the dead.

 

RACHAEL: Hmm. It's so interesting. Like, I don't think I ever would have come across these stories in any other moment in time, like, in my own heart and head and felt, like, any sort of sympathy for the people who wanted to believe in the spiritualists, like, who would go to seances and buy Ouija boards. But, like, the moment we're living in right now where I'm speaking to you from my closet and I haven't seen anyone besides my roommate in weeks and, like, the other day I was, like -- because I'm in an apartment with one other person and I'd just been talking to my roommate for so long and I was like, "All right, I gotta get out of this but there's no excuse to get out of here." And then I was just like, "Oh, yeah. I got a phone call with my siblings. I gotta go." And then I walked into my room and just to, like, play it off, like, I actually had a phone call.

 

SUSAN DOUGLAS: Yeah.

 

RACHAEL: I just, like, began speaking as if I was speaking to my siblings and, like, responding to these imaginary things that they would say. Like, I imagined my sister would be talking about her baby, and then my other sister would be talking about this dinner she made. And I would respond and imagine. And I must have sounded crazy, and I do sound crazy.

 

SUSAN DOUGLAS: [laughs]

 

RACHAEL: But it felt so good to, like, do that. It was like -- it was like playing house or, like, make-believe, but it felt so real. And I just -- I don't think I ever would have done it before this moment. But I just -- I just have the sense of empathy for those people. And I'm just as crazy as they are, I guess.

 

SUSAN DOUGLAS: Yeah.

 

JAD: Producer Rachael Cusick. Okay, rounding things out, Molly Webster.

 

MOLLY WEBSTER: So so far, we've done a lot of stories about human history and human experience.

 

JAD: Hmm.

 

MOLLY: But my 1918 thing was, what happened to the virus?

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

MOLLY: Because I mean, at the time we couldn't see it. We didn't have the technology to see it. We didn't even know it was a virus. We didn't know that much about viruses. And so it really was an unseen force. But that all changed in 1997, thanks in a big way to a guy named Johan Holton.

 

JAD: Johan Holton?

 

MOLLY: Yeah, he is, like, a legend as a science adventurer. And so basically, the story goes is like, Johan got very interested in trying to see if they could get a sample of the 1918 flu and learn about it. So he went to Brevig Mission, Alaska, which is a very, very cold place where bodies would be preserved, and there was a known flu outbreak there late in the pandemic that killed most of the village.

 

JAD: Hmm.

 

MOLLY: And so he dug down into the permafrost where there was essentially this mass grave, went into bodies, took out portions of the lungs, then sent those samples to a lab in Washington, DC, run by this guy.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: Hello. It's Jeff Taubenberger.

 

MOLLY: Hey Jeff, it's Molly Webster. How are you?

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: Good. How are you?

 

MOLLY: Doctor Jeffrey Taubenberger.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: I'm a Senior Investigator at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

 

MOLLY: Anyways, back in 1997, Jeff took those samples into the lab and he was able to kind of really see the virus itself.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: So if you sequence all the genes of the 1918 virus, which ...

 

RACHAEL: As you did.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: ... we did in my lab back in the 1990s ...

 

RACHAEL: And what he saw, so to speak, was all of this genetic material called RNA.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: Influenza is an RNA virus, but the RNA that makes up the genome of the influenza virus is not just on one string, one continuous strand of RNA.

 

RACHAEL: Oh.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: It's on eight separate little pieces called segments.

 

RACHAEL: Really?

 

RACHAEL: According to Jeff, you can think of those segments as genes, so there are eight different genes all doing different things.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: And once you have that exact sequence, now you can do very careful geneaologies.

 

RACHAEL: By comparing those genes to other genes and other flus from 1918 all the way up to today ...

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: You can just follow it and you can look at how things change over time.

 

MOLLY: ... you can put together a very thorough life history of this virus.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: Yeah. It's a crazy story.

 

MOLLY: The first thing to know is that when the pandemic petered out, like around 1920 or so, the virus itself did not.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: No. The pandemic virus never went away. It just started circulating annually, causing influenza.

 

MOLLY: And as more and more people became immune to it, it basically became like the normal flu.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: Spread person to person.

 

MOLLY: Through 1921 and '22.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: Changing a little bit every single year ...

 

MOLLY: Enough so that it wouldn't die out because of immunity, but we're still talking about the same baseline flu that infected and killed everyone in 1918, running around, dominant virus, traveling all over the world.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: ... throughout the '20s and beyond.

 

MOLLY: Through the 1920s, the 1930s, 1940s, goes into the 1950s. And then we get to 1957.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: Somehow in 1957, a dual infection occurred between the human virus that derived from 1918 and an unknown bird virus.

 

JAD: Wait, so there's -- there's a meeting of two viruses right at the doorstep to a cell?

 

MOLLY: So now there's two. Yeah.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: Yes.

 

MOLLY: And because they were both flu viruses, they both had those eight gene segments which means they could ...

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: Mix and match those genes to create a new virus.

 

MOLLY: It's like a Plug and Play or something.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: Yeah. Think of Lego blocks. You know, you can put them together in different ways as long as you have a complete set.

 

MOLLY: So these two viruses end up swapping their genes, and the 1918 virus ends up with three new genes. Now two of those genes make very important proteins.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: The two major proteins that are sticking out on the surface of the virus, like the little spikes that stick out from membrane around the virus ...

 

MOLLY: Those two proteins are abbreviated H and N. So the 1918 virus was H1N1, and when it bumped into this other virus it got a new H and a new N.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: When that happened, what you had was a new virus that had all the core machinery that had already been adapted to humans of the 1918 virus, but it now had proteins on the surface that nobody had immunity to, and so it could cause a new pandemic.

 

MOLLY: After almost 40 years of, you know, being the regular old flu and making people sick but, like, not that sick, in 1957 all of a sudden there was a new version of this virus.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: H2N2 virus.

 

MOLLY: And thanks that new H and N, it killed over a million people worldwide and over a hundred thousand in the US.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: And it's ...

 

MOLLY: It's like a serial killer that went and changed its clothes or something.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: Yeah, exactly. But, you know, the core of the virus was still derived from 1918. And then the crazy thing is that just 11 years later in 1968, that 1957 virus interacted in some way somehow with another bird virus ...

 

MOLLY: Did the gene-swapping thing again, got itself a new H.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: ... and that became H3.

 

MOLLY: What?

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: But the N2 from 1957 stayed the same.

 

MOLLY: With the backbone of -- yes! Go ahead, sorry. Oh!

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: It's five genes from the 1918 virus, two genes from the 1968 virus, and one gene from the 1957 virus. And then in 1977, the H1N1 virus, all eight genes from the 1918 virus that stopped circulating in 1957 came back into human circulation 20 years later.

 

MOLLY: No!

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: Yes!

 

MOLLY: Wow!

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: And that H1N1 virus co-circulated with the H3N2 virus, so that we had two different strains competing with each other for annual flu season. And then that circulated until they were replaced by a new pandemic that had a really complicated and mixed-up origin in relation to 1918.

 

MOLLY: Okay, so to understand this next part you have to know that most flus come from birds and they go into us. But they can go into other animals, too.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: Horses or dogs, whales and seals and camels and bats that have flu that ...

 

MOLLY: Whales!

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: They probably all have a -- yes whales. Influenza viruses are in ...

 

MOLLY: The reason that that matters is it turns out that way back at the beginning of our story ...

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: The 1918 virus most likely went from humans to pigs in 1918.

 

MOLLY: Whoa!

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: And then the virus adapted to pigs and made a pig-specific lineage of the 1918 virus that became swine influenza.

 

JAD: Oh my God!

 

MOLLY: And so the human strain of 1918 goes off and it goes through the '20s and the '30s and the '40s and the '50s and onwards and onwards while the pig strain is doing the same thing. It's going through the piggy 1920s and then the piggy 1930s and the piggy 1940s, and it's doing little changes along the way. And at some point, they give it back to us.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: In a complex set of swapping genes between human viruses, pig viruses and bird viruses, a new virus was created that has some of the genes from the 1918 virus. But some are derived from its human descendants, two of them are derived from its swine flu descendants, and then a couple other genes from a bird virus. And that led to a new H1N1 virus in 2009.

 

JAD: This is so wild!

 

MOLLY: I know. But pig detour aside, I think the thing that was crazy about what Jeff told me is that the -- that virus, the one that had the backbone of 1918, the one in 1968 ...

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: The 1968 H3N2 virus became the dominant form of influenza, and it's still the dominant form of influenza today.

 

MOLLY: Really?

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: More than 50 years later.

 

MOLLY: Does that mean that, like, the flu I might have gotten this past winter is built on the backbone of the 1918 strain?

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: It absolutely is. And, you know, here's the thing I think that's important to think about: If our data are correct that a single transmission event from a bird virus to humans, say just before 1918, that led to the emergence of this new pandemic virus, not only the tens of millions of people who died in the pandemic itself, estimated at least between 50 and maybe even a hundred million people, but that the tens of millions of people who have died of influenza in the last hundred and two years are all directly related to a single event in which a bird virus adapted to humans.

 

MOLLY: Sometime before 1918 -- and no one really knows when -- like, a human, you know, touched some bird poop and scratched their nose or ate an infected chicken or, like, hugged a turkey or something, and this virus went from that bird, snuck into that human, and from there it went from human to human to human to human to human to human to human every day of every year for the last a hundred and two years.

 

JEFF TAUBENBERGER: So the 1918 virus is ultimately responsible for all the flu deaths that have occurred in a hundred years, which is stunning to think about.

 

JAD: Wow, so the pandemic never finished in a way.

 

MOLLY: Right.

 

JAD: It does also make you wonder. I mean like, here we are with the coronavirus six months in, like, are we at the start of some crazy 102-year journey with this virus?

 

MOLLY: Hello.

 

ANTHONY FAUCI: Hi.

 

MOLLY: Hi.

 

JAD: So we actually called up the best person we could think of to answer that question.

 

JAD: Okay, Doctor Fauci. Such an honor to talk to you.

 

ANTHONY FAUCI: Sure.

 

JAD: Dr. Anthony Fauci, who probably at this point doesn't need an introduction, but when we got him on the line, we told him what we had learned about the 1918 virus.

 

JAD: ... transformed several times into smaller pandemics.

 

ANTHONY FAUCI: Right.

 

JAD: Stretching all the way into the '70s.

 

JAD: And then we just asked him.

 

JAD: Do you see that sort of legacy stretching forward for COVID-19? Like, in a hundred years, are we gonna look back on it the way we look back on 1918 now?

 

ANTHONY FAUCI: Yeah, you know, it is conceivable but unpredictable and not inevitable. So COVID-19 is a brand new virus. It doesn't have the reassortment capabilities that the flu has. It doesn't have gene segments that would allow for what we call easy reassortment.

 

JAD: The first thing he told us is that the coronavirus doesn't have those eight segments that the flu viruses have, so it can't do that same swapping of parts.

 

ANTHONY FAUCI: All those genetic shenanigans, as it were.

 

JAD: But on the other hand, the coronavirus ...

 

ANTHONY FAUCI: It certainly has the capability to mutate. So it could change.

 

JAD: Gotcha.

 

ANTHONY FAUCI: So I guess the question people are asking, is it conceivable that with this particular coronavirus that we're gonna see versions of this as the years go by? You can never predict with certainty, but what I think we'll see over the years is that we will either control it very well with a vaccine, which I do hope is the most likely option, or it will go through a couple of cycles of seasons and then will take its place at a low-level threat. Something that's present that can be dealt with, that it doesn't, you know, impact us in a way that it's impacted now.

 

JAD: Gotcha. Gotcha. I guess that's comforting to hear. I mean, the best case scenario being that we see a couple of cycles of this and then a vaccine kind of tempers it and gently guides it into something of a low level ...

 

ANTHONY FAUCI: Right.

 

JAD: ... something of a seasonal variety. What's the worst-case scenario that keeps you up at night?

 

ANTHONY FAUCI: Well, I have to tell you the worst-case scenario that keeps me up at night I'm living through right now. A brand new virus that jumps species, infects humans, and has the combined capability of spreading extremely rapidly from human to human at the same time as it has a relatively high degree of morbidity and mortality. And that's exactly what we're in right now. Literally, the perfect storm of a pandemic, which is the reason why unlike other pandemics of different years, with the exception of 1918 which has some serious significant similarities, we have an epidemic that has essentially gripped the planet. So this is indeed an unprecedented situation. We've not been here before, certainly no one in our generations.

 

JAD: You know, this whole show, I feel like it started because of a conversation you and I were having about what would it be like to emerge from this COVID-19 era. So, okay. Let's look back. Let's look back at 1918 and see what happened in the years after that. And in doing that, we found all of these tendrils: artistic, technological, social things that reached out not just past 1918, but all the way to now. And it just -- it just makes me feel like the way in which we think about the rulers of our histories are just not the rulers. It's like somehow we are not the masters of our destiny in the way that we think.

 

MOLLY: It is interesting, because it's like the things that catch our eye are not always the things that define us.

 

JAD: Yeah, that's a better way to put it. Yeah.

 

JAD: Okay, very special thanks for these dispatches to Verena Gamper, Rajmohan Gandhi, Siddharth Chandra, David Arnold, Laura Spinney, Simon Jutras, who played the role of Georges Clémenceau. Our own David Gebel, who played the role of Woodrow Wilson. Dan Fink for casting and also the National Film Board of Canada for use of the film based on the book by Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919. Okay, I'm Jad Abumrad. Thank you for listening. Please stay safe everybody.

 

[TIM: This is Tim Scammell from New Maryland in New Brunswick, Canada. Radiolab is created by Jad Abumrad with Robert Krulwich, and produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our Executive Producer. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, W. Harry Fortuna, Sarah Sandbach, Malissa O'Donnell, Tad Davis, and Russell Gragg. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.]

 

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